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Canadian report hits border security

TORONTO -- Canada's security net is full of holes, with most border crossings guarded by a lone staffer and airport security so lax that missing security badges and uniforms recently turned up for sale on eBay.

A new Senate security report calls for reform, a boost in defense spending, and improved cooperation with the United States. Canadians have relied too long on luck to avoid a terrorist attack, it says, scolding: "Unfortunately, luck is notoriously untrustworthy."

The 315-page report by the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defense, the first released under the year-old government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, said most of Canada's 160 land and maritime border crossings have only one person at the posts.

"The potential damage to the Canadian economy and other consequences that would come with allowing a terrorist to infiltrate the US through Canada are massive," the report said.

Securing the 4,000-mile border is paramount, to prevent terrorist attacks and protect about $1.4 billion in trade each day between the North American neighbors.

"All it would take is a serious terrorist incident, caused by someone slipping through Canada, to shut down the border, and that would be an absolute disaster," said Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in US-Canadian relations.

The report, which some are calling alarmist and ineffectual -- as it comes from the politically appointed upper house of parliament -- noted that Canadian forces have been hit with budget cuts of about 30 percent between 1988 and 2000.

"Despite NATO's recent expansions, Canada remains mired third-last among the 26 member countries, ahead of only Luxembourg and Iceland," the report said. Iceland has no armed forces.

Canada promised to spend $6.2 billion over five years to improve border security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. The measures include better screening at the 89 federal airports, but critics say little has improved. More than 1,000 airport security uniforms and badges disappeared in the first nine months of the year; some turned up later on the eBay online auction site. Transport Minister Jean Lapierre ordered an investigation into the disappearance of the items, which are required to gain access to restricted areas.

Though many Canadians and foreigners complain about long lines and delays because of security checks at Pearson International Airport near Toronto, the report concluded that all checked baggage is not being comprehensively screened for explosives.

"Given that terrorists have proven themselves willing to commit suicide in order to achieve their goals, more rigorous inspection of checked baggage is required," it said.

According to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, explosives detection systems have been deployed at most of Canada's largest airports, and the authority has pledged that all checked baggage will be screened by year's end. The Senate committee, however, said it will take at least another year before that happens.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, is a "toothless" agency that is unarmed and reports to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the report said.

"Despite its name, the Coast Guard doesn't play a serious role in guarding our coasts," the senators said, recommending that the agency answer to the Department of National Defense for security assignments.

Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who is one of Canada's leading academic specialists on security and intelligence, acknowledges the report paints a bleak scenario.

But he said the committee hoped to push the Martin administration to keep up the momentum on security issues and prevent Canadians from becoming too complacent about their safety.

"They need to paint things in slightly alarmist hues in order to grab the Canadian public," he said.

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